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What's It's Like To Live On The Lam


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos lived a quiet life, a painter, a cook, a husband and a father in an idyllic seaside town in Portugal. Then a fingerprint led investigators to conclude that he was actually George Wright, an American, a convicted murderer and an alleged airplane hijacker who collected a million-dollar ransom and went on the run for more than 40 years. Wright now faces extradition back to the U.S.

Until last month, Wright was among the 6,500 fugitives the FBI believes to be on the run. Today, life on the lam, what it takes to stay hidden and what eventually trips them up.

If you've ever lived under the radar, how did you do it? Give us your story. Call 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

W: What have you ever learned watching a cooking show on TV? Send us an email now, talk@npr.org.

But first life on the lam. Victor Oboyski spent nearly 30 years tracking fugitives and retired as a supervisory deputy U.S. Marshal and joins us now on the phone from his home in Washington, Maine. Good to have you with us today.

VICTOR OBOYSKI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: George Wright stayed hidden for 40 years. What did he do right?

OBOYSKI: Well, what he did right was basically stay out of the life of crime. And obviously he was able to get good identification. He probably broke most of his ties with his past. And he most likely had a lot of help, which I believe he did once he arrived in Algeria.

And he tried to lead the kind of life that, in the Marshal Service, we want our relocated witnesses to lead, and that basically is, like you said: stay under the radar, don't bring attention to yourself.

CONAN: Don't become prominent in any way.

OBOYSKI: No, and whatever you do, don't get fingerprinted, which I think probably was his undoing.

CONAN: And a fingerprint popped up because of an identification record, as I understand it.

OBOYSKI: Yes, I believe in the - in Portugal, they probably fingerprinted him because he didn't originate from there, and then when the investigators, who did an outstanding job in tracking him down, decided to see if there was any fingerprint matches, sure enough they came up with a match.

CONAN: How do people stay hidden?

OBOYSKI: Well, they stay hidden by, like I said, you know, breaking off ties with the past, starting a new life. He started life with a woman that didn't even know his real past. He had children, and he presented a persona to the people around him that wouldn't lead them to believe that he was - number one, he was a murderer, or number two, that he may have hijacked a plane, or did all these other dastardly deeds that he's wanted for in the United States.

CONAN: And how do you find somebody who wants to stay hidden?

OBOYSKI: Well, that can be a long and arduous task. You just have to keep digging in. You just have to keep investigating, talking to friends, talking to relatives, trying to get known associates, trying to figure out who he may be with, try and get leads to see if he has fled to another country. If he's fled to another country, you know, identify that country, contact Interpol, get them fingerprints, get them photographs and all the things that you have to do as an investigator to try and put other law enforcement agencies on alert that this individual may be within their midst.

CONAN: And how do - a lot of these people are wanted on, for example state crimes. Interstate cooperation is important, obviously getting the FBI involved, U.S. Marshal Service. What about internationally, as in the case of George Wright, Interpol. Is that important?

OBOYSKI: Oh, Interpol is very important and obviously getting the federal agencies involved because a lot of the state agencies and local agencies at the county level don't have the resources that the feds have. But getting Interpol involved, we have found the Marshal Service, has been very advantageous because they put out what they call red notices, which is a notice that goes to all the member countries.

There's about 188 member countries, and there's red notices that will flag a person that's traveling around. If you have a person that's traveling around from country to country, if he has a phony passport, which a lot of these fellows may have, that may not work.

But again, the fingerprints and the photograph may alert local law enforcement in another country that this fellow is wanted.

CONAN: There's a person currently on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, a man named Victor Manuel Gerena, who's been on the run since 1983, accused of armed robbery of approximately $7 million from a security company in Connecticut, took two security employees hostage at gunpoint, then handcuffed, bound and injected them with an unknown substance in order to further disable them.

This from 1983, among the things they show on the poster is his enhanced - computer-enhanced age.

OBOYSKI: Right, well, I've been out about 12 years now, and since my retirement, the ability of being able to do all this electronic and computer enhancement, and GPS and database searches, has really improved dramatically. And that does - and that does help. I had a case - to show you what technology was like - when I was working, we actually hired a fellow to do a bust of a fugitive, aging him.

CONAN: Oh, you mean a statute of - a bust.

OBOYSKI: Right, a bust, and in Philadelphia, I'd done it with people that were missing, or if they found a skeleton to see what the person may have looked like. Well, we hired him, the Marshal Service, we hired him, and we had him do a bust of a fellow that was missing for about seven or eight years, and on top of that, the individual, we knew he had a heart problem, and he was a heavy drinker and a smoker, and he added that in.

And then what we did is we took a picture of the bust. Well, when we finally located him in Hartford, Connecticut, and we showed the photo of the bust that had been made, the person we showed it to said oh, yeah, that's him. They recognized it right off the bat. And he did look very similarly with - as the bust, as the bust that had been made, including the moustache that we had added on.

CONAN: Victor Oboyski is telling us what the search is like from the investigator's point of view. He worked for 28 years for the U.S. Marshal Service and retired as a supervisory deputy. We want to hear your point of view. If you've lived under the radar, what was it like? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Rick's(ph) on the line, Rick calling us from Interstate 80 in Nevada.

RICK: Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

RICK: Thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I amassed a few drug charges in the late '80s, and I took off in 1990, and it was pretty easy to do then. I just - I got a couple of states away from where I grew up at, and I just gave them a fake Social Security number when I wanted to get a job, or else I worked under the table.

I was lucky enough to get a job on a fishing boat, which really gets you away from the authorities, and I waited it out about four years, and, you know, my attitude changed when I got off the drugs and came back and turned myself in. And when I left, I was looking at nine years. When I walked into the local police station and told them my story, I - you know, by the time court and everything else was done with, I wound up doing about nine months in jail and about three years of probation at the county level, I didn't go to prison.

And all in all, it worked out pretty good for me.

CONAN: The fishing boat, obviously the authorities are a long way away.

RICK: Yeah, and, you know, we got the Coast Guard onboard a couple times but, you know, just to check what we had in the hold and, you know, for safety stuff on the boat. I was never - I mean, I had a fake ID. It was a state-issued ID. I just used someone else's birth certificate to get it. But I never really had to show it to anybody.

The only thing I was really worried about was something stupid happening and that would make them see - you know, I got a couple traffic tickets during that time. Mainly all I was worried about was winding up in jail and getting my fingerprints taken. But again, you know, that was in the 1990s. It's a lot harder to travel without a trail now.

CONAN: I suspect you're right about that, and - but were you ever worried about, you know, the knock on the door?

RICK: Oh yeah, constantly, just it never really leaves the back of your mind. You know, someone could be at your house, you know, and do something, and get the cops called, and they want to talk to who lives there, you know, any number of things could happen. So sure, you know, you're always a lot more careful, and you look over your shoulder.

And it was kind of ironic, the little town that I went to when I ran, I actually got to know one of the local police officers there, and I'd run into him in the pub once in a while, we'd have a few beers. And the day that I left to come back, I just - you know, I told him I was leaving, and I had known this guy a couple of years by now.

You know, I'd been to his house, he'd been to my house, and I told him what I was doing, and I was just - what am I doing telling a cop this. I'm going to go to jail right here. I'm not going to get a chance to turn myself in. But he just said yeah, good luck.

CONAN: Good luck, okay.

RICK: Came back and turned myself in.

CONAN: All right, Rick, congratulations, glad you sorted all that out.

RICK: All right, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: You're welcome. Jennifer Mascia grew up in a sense on the run. Her father was a wanted man for a number of years. She wrote about that experience in her book "Never Tell Our Business to Strangers." She joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

JENNIFER MASCIA: Nice to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And you knew your father both as John(ph) and as Frank(ph).

MASCIA: Yes, I did. Around the time I started remembering things, when I was old enough to repeat things, my mother drilled into me that my father was John inside the house, but outside the house, we were to call him Frank. So I started believing that John and Frank were derivatives of the same name, like Bill and William or Richard and Dick. I thought it was the same name.

And I was also told that I was to use a different last name in school, the last name of a friend of ours.

CONAN: And it turns out your father was a fugitive.

MASCIA: Yes, he was. He had done time for murder before I was born. He was associated with the mafia in New York. And when he was released, he told my mother, who knew of his past. It was a new relationship. He turned his life around, started dating a schoolteacher. But he lapsed back into criminality, as is so often the case, when you grow up in that life.

And my mother was so in love and about to have a baby, and she kind of swallowed all of this, and he went back to cocaine dealing in Miami, and he was arrested. And he knew he would go back to jail. Violating parole for a murder conviction is very serious. So he said to my mother this is it, are you coming? And she had an infant me in her arms, and she said you bet.

And they ran. They ran to Houston and then California, which is where I grew up.

CONAN: More about Jennifer Mascia's life on the run as a child, her father as a fugitive. We'll also continue talking with Victor Oboyski, a FORMER U.S. MARSHAL. If you spent life under the radar for a while, call and tell us about it, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When Boston mob boss Whitey Bolger was arrested in June after 16 years on the run, he was living a quiet, relatively public life in California. George Wright went further afield, but when police tracked him down in Portugal last month, he too was living a fairly normal, open life. He's now fighting extradition to the U.S. on 40-year-old charges related to airplane hijacking and escape from prison after a jury found him guilty of murder.

The FBI says thousands of people are currently fugitives, on the run. If you have lived under the radar, how'd you do it? Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Victor Oboyski, FORMER U.S. MARSHAL. He retired in 1999. Jennifer Mascia is also with us. Her father lived on the run until she was five years old. She wrote about the experience in her book " Never Tell Our Business to Strangers." And five years on the run, Jennifer, you were obviously a little girl, but this has left scars.

MASCIA: I will never forget the day they came to take him away. And just like your call-in guest said, the knock on the door never leaves the back of your head. As an adult now, I realize how scared he must have been, but it just - for the children, it's incomprehensible when you're that young.

CONAN: How did living that life affect you and your mom?

MASCIA: Well, my parents' idea of a bank was to cut open the padding under carpet and just stuff money there and kind of pray it didn't flood. You don't get involved in any kind of institution like a bank, also fingerprints, of course. You're very wary of crossing the law in terms of especially with traffic, speeding tickets, exactly what your call-in guest just said.

My mother inadvertently made it possible for the FBI to discover my father because she got a speeding ticket, and she said we were so stupid, we didn't get another car. They traced the VIN number on the car. Now, this was in the early '80s. It took five years for them to find him. Now it would take five minutes.

No wonder George Wright went to Portugal. You'd have to.


CONAN: Well, he was already overseas after he hijacked an airliner to Algeria. Victor Oboyski, I wanted to ask you, there's another person on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitive List, Joe Luis Saenz. He's alleged to have shot and killed two rival gang members in Los Angeles. What is like looking for somebody when somebody else may also be looking for somebody?

OBOYSKI: Well, obviously you have a time problem because when they're looking for them, and you're looking for them, you want to get them before they find them. That happened - I worked a number of organized crime cases in New York involving fugitives, and we did have organized crime people that were on the run, and the mob was looking for them because they didn't want them to become a rat.

You know, they're always afraid that if a guy gets locked up, obviously the FBI is going to swoop in and say hey, look, you got big problems, the best thing you could do now is cooperate. So a lot of times what they'll be doing is they'll say, well, look, we got to find this guy. We have to eliminate him as a possible witness for the future.

So when you're looking for somebody, and somebody else is looking for someone, definitely you try to speed up your process, obviously. I've got to - it was interesting in that first caller that you received, the one thing he was worried about was fingerprints. And in that case, obviously what he did, he did the smart thing about turning himself in - but also he wasn't involved in any crimes. He stayed out of a life of crime, which the vast majority of fugitives have a very hard time doing.

CONAN: As Jennifer Mascia's father did, as well. But it was interesting, Whitey Bulger, the tip that finally got him was about don't - it was not, you know, if you've seen this man call the authorities. It's if you've seen this woman, his girlfriend.

OBOYSKI: Well, we would - when you start working up a case regarding looking for a fugitive, if you can find out who that fugitive is running with, especially a female partner, a lot of times that's your best lead. Your best lead is focusing on her because if she's running with him, especially if she's a young girl, a younger woman, I would say, she's going to stay in touch with her parents.

I don't care how many times a fugitive will say look, you can't call nobody, you can't contact - that girl is going to contact her mother or contact her father, especially her mother. So a lot of times the best thing to do is to go to the parents, because you know the parents of this young girl aren't too happy that she's running around with this bum who is wanted. And if you go to the parents and say look, we're not interested in your daughter, we're really interested in who she's running with, many times I have found that they're more than happy to help us. Because they want their daughter back, away from this guy, especially if he's a violent individual.

And they want her at home and away from this bum.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Scott(ph), Scott with us from Reno.

SCOTT: How do you do?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

SCOTT: All right. I was on probation, and there was no work in the town that I was on probation in. So I split probation for a couple of years, packed saddles and bridles and went into the heartland of Montana and Wyoming looking to train horses and just kind of bowed out of the legal system.

I guess I'm calling to say that the legal system never gives up.

CONAN: Did they find you?

SCOTT: They found my father, and they showed up at the door, and he didn't know how to lie quick enough and kind of put them on my trail, and I apologized to him for putting him in that place. And to get it out of the family loop, I turned myself in, did my time, and I am now off of probation.

CONAN: Well, congratulations for that. But when you found out that they were on to you, what did that feel like?

SCOTT: I packed up things as quickly as I could. I had a little fifth-wheel trailer on the back of a truck and drove out of town, and rumor had it they checked within 10 or 15 minutes. They were right there. So it was a little scary.

CONAN: I bet. It's also when you decided to give yourself up. Why eventually did you make that decision?

SCOTT: Again, to relieve the burden on my family. The police, unless you can convince them you're dead, the computers aren't going to forget your record, and they'll hunt you down.

CONAN: Victor Oboyski, did you - anybody ever try to fake their death - in your experience?

OBOYSKI: No, I really haven't - I haven't really run into that, where people had actually try and fake their death or even really drastically change their appearance through plastic surgery. They may gain weight, lose weight, facial hair on or off or hair color, but that extreme, that's not the case.

CONAN: You've ruined a lot of movie plots there, so...


OBOYSKI: Yeah, and like this caller whose father gave him up, family members, a vast majority of them are law-abiding people, and they don't like cops coming to their door. And that is a tactic, you know, keep going back to the family members. And I've told people: Look, I'm going to put wanted posters up all over the - I know he's not around here, but I'm going to put wanted posters up all over the place.

And they look at you and go why. Because I want everyone to know that your son's wanted. And they'll say, well, let me see if I can help you. So you try and use a little pressure on the family, which obviously was done with the father in the last case. And you try and put a little pressure on the family to say look, cooperate because we are not - we are not going to go away. We're going to keep coming back.

CONAN: Scott, thanks for the call, and glad you cleared it up.

SCOTT: You all have a good day.

CONAN: Okay, bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Yuri(ph), Yuri with us from Phoenix. Yuri, are you there? Yuri, one more time? Let's see if we can go next to - this is Michelle(ph), Michelle with us from Eureka in California.


CONAN: Hi, Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MICHELLE: Oh, I was on the run for about two years, and it was because I was a drug addict, and I was afraid of the withdrawal I'd have to go through if I went to jail. But my main thing was never riding in cars, because if the car gets pulled over, your ID is going to get run.

And also if I ever did encounter a cop, I would always flatter them. I would always say oh, your job is so hard, and you have to deal with such crazy people. And then somehow they felt like I wasn't a threat.


CONAN: And if you don't - never ride in a car, life can be difficult.

MICHELLE: Well, I took the bus or rode my bike. But I eventually turned myself in, and it wasn't that bad.

CONAN: And you got clean, and that's the important thing.

MICHELLE: That was how I got clean, by the crash I went through in jail. So it was good for me.

CONAN: And what was it that made you make the decision?

MICHELLE: You know, life got redundant. You get up in the morning, you go cop, and then you get high, and then you wake until you've got to go cop again, and I just didn't want to live that cycle anymore.

CONAN: Congratulations, Michelle.

MICHELLE: See you later.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Jennifer Mascia, did you ever get the feeling your dad wanted to live a normal life?

MASCIA: He did, and he didn't. When he was on the lam, he was a law-abiding citizen, for those five years. I think it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He taught himself a trade. He learned how to repair carpets by reading a book, and he started a business - again, off the radar.

But I think that in that respect, we were very lucky because I had the best of him, and funny enough, it was when he got caught, did his time, which again was not as much time as would have happened five years earlier. You know, after he got caught, it became easier to lapse back into criminality because he became like everyone else in a way. You know, he wasn't minding his P's and Q's so much. But he hated waking up early in the morning. He, in a lot of ways, he liked to cut corners. He used to say, I don't want be a regular Joe Schmo.

CONAN: Regular Joe Schmo.


CONAN: It makes the rest of us feel wonderful, doesn't it?

MASCIA: Well, I'm a Joe Schmo now and I'm proud so...

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation now. Let's go to Corey, Corey with us from Richland in Washington.

COREY: Yeah. I was caught for DUI in 1990, I believe it was. And I pled guilty to the charge and, you know, paid my two years worth of money to the state for probation and went through kind of a pretty lame things to try to get you out of drink and alcohol and all that kind of stuff.

CONAN: A rehab program, yeah.

COREY: Yeah. Well, after that, they still wanted more money, and I just decided to drop off the radar. I went for five years driving virtually every day, but what it thought me was don't get pulled over, you know? It made me a very good driver. I did get picked up in '96 for something really stupid. I was driving through a speed trap. And I knew it was a speed trap, but I wasn't paying attention. And I had my new girlfriend, who later became my wife. And as the gumball machines came on, I realized that I'm going to jail. I'm trying to explain to her that I'm going to jail, and she didn't believe me. And - but then when she managed to bail me out of jail at 3 o'clock on a Sunday morning in a town she'd never been in, I've decided she might be a keeper.

CONAN: I think you lucked out, yeah.

COREY: But anyway, my - the moral of the story was after I did get popped and I got sent back to court, I found out that my evaluation had been done by the wife of the judge that sat before me. And they had already thrown out dozens of cases because of that, and they basically let me go because I had been, you know, clean and sober and hadn't been a bad boy for five years. So I basically walked out of there free and clear, I guess you could say. Although, like I say, to this day, I stop at every stop sign. I signal every lane change.


CONAN: Victor Oboyski, maybe you just should stop everybody who's obeying all the speeding laws?

OBOYSKI: Yeah, that would be...


OBOYSKI: ...sounds like a good deal.

COREY: And now I get so irritated when I see people doing stuff that I used to do 10, 15, 20 years ago.

CONAN: Corey, thanks very much for the call. Stay straight. We're talking about fugitives and life on the run. Our guests are Victor Oboyski, who worked as a deputy U.S. Marshal, and with Jennifer Mascia, whose book is "Never Tell Our Business to Strangers." Her father was a fugitive on the run until she was five. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to - this is Paul. Paul with us from San Francisco.

PAUL: Hi. My parents were fugitives in the '50s because we were running from the FBI. My parents were union organizers in the Communist Party. And I spent a lot of time as a fugitive. We would move every year. I remember one time the FBI coming to the door and my mother told me, tell them to go away. So I opened up the door and said, just go away from my house, and someone to go in the face of the FBI. And so we would live in one place, my father would live in the next town over in order so that he can still work and not be followed.

CONAN: And so...

PAUL: Teaching a course, I now teach a course on how to be a fugitive.

CONAN: Really? People take lessons in this?

PAUL: Yeah. And there's always an FBI agent sitting in the class. They pay for it just like everybody else does. But there were — there used to be — still are a lot of people trying to run from their bills.

CONAN: Running from bills, that's not quite the same as armed robbery or, again, the FBI. But, Jennifer Mascia, have you thought of ever teaching a course on how to be a fugitive?

MASCIA: God, it's so painful. I'd definitely include a psychological component. I mean, you know, no. I think it's - although, you know, by listening to this broadcast so far, you'd think that just going somewhere for five years, waiting for the case to get cold and coming back and, you know, you'd get much better treatment than when the case is still hot, but, yeah.

CONAN: Well, Victor Oboyski, you were on the catching side, not the prosecution side, and they were the ones making deals likes that. But is that generally the case if it's gone cold and you're either caught or turned yourself in after five or 10 years?

OBOYSKI: Well, for certain crimes, sure, I mean, not for murder, not for rape, not for a serious armed robbery. I mean, you're not - what you're talking about now in the broadcast aren't real crimes that would necessitate someone going away for 15 to 20 years. But on the other hand, if you turn yourself in, that's the first step towards contrition, I would say. The other thing is if you can demonstrate that you haven't been in any problem and you haven't had problems up until that one time, and you haven't had any more problems or you haven't been involved in committing any more crimes, obviously that would be taken into consideration. They'll take a look at you and go, well, look, you know, this person probably has reformed himself. And obviously, that's the defense attorney would tell a judge.

And, yeah, they may actually give you something a little more lenient than you may have received when you were first arrested. That is a possibility. But then, like I said, that would depend upon the crime, and also would depend upon your criminal history. If you've been a lifelong criminal, the fact that you've been gone for five years, they're not going to really care a lot. They're going to say, this guy, you know, who knows what he's been up to in the past five years?

CONAN: Yeah.

OBOYSKI: But if you're pretty clean up until that point, like that fellow with the DUI...

CONAN: Right.

OBOYSKI: ...yeah, they may turn around, give him a slap on the wrist and say, well, you know, you really have led an exemplary life. Now, I don't think that's going to be the case with the fellow in Portugal who has already been convicted of murder and...

CONAN: And still faces trial for hijacking an airplane, so?

OBOYSKI: Yeah, right. So I think - I don't think that they'll say, well, look, he's been living a very quiet life in Portugal, we'll give this guy a pass. I don't believe that's going to happen with him, and shouldn't.

CONAN: Paul - thanks very much for the call, Paul. And, Victor Oboyski, thanks for your time today. And Jennifer Mascia, her book is "Never Tell Our Business to Strangers." We appreciate your time as well. Jacques Pepin when we come back. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.